Behind the Novels


One of my closest friends in high school in the late '60s was passionately interested in World War I Germany, especially the German navy. (Wait a minute! What does this have to do with acting out role playing games through direct mind links??! Bear with me, my friend!) He and another friend would get together and play one of those boxed games that provided you with a map and small ship tokens and would allow you to reconstruct historical battles and create "what if" scenarios by rolling dice. (I believe it was Avalon Hill's "Jutland", but I'm not certain.) These were the precursors of the role playing games of the '70s. But Larry and John took the game farther than the makers of the game had originally envisioned by actually taking on the personae of Kaiser Wilhelm II and Admiral Graf von Spee, respectively, unknowingly taking it one step closer to role playing. They brought many of the rest of our circle into the role playing aspect, although we didn't share the same passion for history. (I was Feld-Marshal General von Hindenburg. But that's another convoluted story that involves my first completed play and a pre-fame brush with Gary Sinise and is covered elsewhere.)

Little as I cared for World War I generals from an historic point of view, I enjoyed playing a part. It's no surprise that this interest, combined with my love of science-fiction and fantasy (I discovered Tolkien and Lord of the Rings at about the same time) would predispose me toward "Dungeons and Dragons". Yes, I was one of those people. I created and played several characters, created and ran my own dungeons, and had a ball.

Eventually, I left D&D behind, partly because I had outgrown it - I was married now - and partly because, as a Christian, I had begun to view the premise with a bit of suspicion. But I was still fascinated with the concept.

Then the computer games, which began gaining popularity about the same time with arcade games such as "Asteroids" and "Pac-Man", really exploded with more realistic animation and programming that would put the player in the middle of the action, and became more easily accessible on home systems, and the pencil-and-paper versions started dying out. They never actually went away completely (Lester Smith, one of my friends from those days, still creates and sells them - look him up!), but they were relegated to their own niche.

It was with this background that I began to imagine a future in which computer programming and role playing games meshed. I wondered what would happen if one could link the players' minds directly to one another to create a kind of waking dream state, a detailed role playing game as realistic as a nightmare. And what would happen if such a scenario would be taken out of the hands of the technicians and used by one of the players to attempt to "possess" the mind of another? And what if the only way to combat that threat were to do so within the parameters of the game itself, with only minimal help from the outside world?

Thus Mindgames was born.

I was laid off from my factory job in the mid '80s, during the early writing of the novel, working part time as an Avon representative (and, yes, that's exactly what I mean - I was an "Avon lady"!). One of my customers was Dr. Ann Stroink, one of the top neurosurgeons in the Midwestern United States. I presented my idea to her, and although she readily admitted that this was, indeed, the stuff of science fiction and not science fact, she helped me formulate a way to connect the minds of my players without stretching the bounds of credibility too thin.

As for Reynard de Beaumains (the name means, literally, "good hands"; I chose it as an ironic reference to the fact that he has only one "good" hand), although I had taken four years of French in high school, I was aware of my own deficiencies. To that end, I consulted another acquaintance, Annie McCarty, who had been born and raised in France, asking her to edit and correct Reynard's dialogue.

The concept of characters being trapped in a dream (or otherwise unreal) world and having to work their way out by the "rules" of that world with only minimal help from "outside" is hardly new. I'm sure more than one reader will be happy to point out similarities to Christopher Nolan's 2010 movie Inception. The truth is, I started Mindgames more than 40 years before the movie came out. But I readily admit being influenced by another source: the novel Ubik by Philip K. Dick.

Normal, Illinois, as well as Illinois State University, are real. I came to Normal in 1970 to attend Illinois State University, moving to its twin city, Bloomington, after graduation (the two together are popularly referred to as "Blo-No"). Believe me, area residents have heard every possible joke about the name of the town. There's a little town in southeast Illinois called "Oblong"; in 1971, the Bloomington newspaper, "The Pantagraph", published the wedding announcement of a Normal man to an Oblong woman. History repeated itself in 2012. You can bet people around the country had a field day with that.

Game Designers' Workshop (or GDW), where Cenadine and Mallena materialize, was an actual business at the time of the writing of the manuscript. It was famous for scores of historical, family-oriented, and science-fiction boardgames, role playing games (including "Traveler", something of a legend among gamers), magazines, books, and even a handful of computer games. One of my fellow D&D-ers, Lester Smith (whom I mentioned above), worked for GDW for a time. GDW closed down in 1996; however, shortly after I finished the manuscript, I did stop by their offices to ask permission to use their business. They were amused at the manner in which I destroyed their building, and willingly blessed my project.

The description of the Illinois State University campus and Waterson Towers - a real dorm on campus - are based on their appearance in the '80s. Much has changed in the area since then. The factory in which the climax takes place was the General Electric plant east of Normal where I worked while writing this novel, and the interior description was based on the interior of the plant at that time. The plant closed in 2010. The fate of the building remains in limbo at the time of this writing.

The Eros Variations

The first time I had to consider homosexuality as something other than the object of various insulting jokes was in college. During my first year there, in 1971, in a psychology lecture, I noticed some guy in the next seat doodling on his paper. Among his doodles was an ornate "Gay Power". He noticed me noticing him, and made sure I could see what he was doing. Later, he came on to me directly. As a new Christian, I was confused as to what my reaction should be. I couldn't mock or insult something that now had a face, but I also wanted nothing to do with him or his sexual choices.

Not long after this, I was in a bathroom stall at a local mall when I realized some guy was hanging around well beyond when he was finished at the sinks. My immediate thought was that he was waiting to proposition me. This was, of course, quite an assumption on my part. He could have been delayed by something totally unrelated to me. Or he could have been simply waiting to rob me. In any case, on the spur of the moment, I loudly announced, "If you're waiting for me to come out, you're gonna have a long wait!" He quickly left the restroom.

Then a high school friend summoned the courage to come out to me. Actually, I wasn't surprised; I had suspected for some time. However, homosexuality was hitting closer to home.

My final wakeup call came in about 1973. I had become good friends with a talented fellow Christian who lived in my dorm. He was everything I was convinced I wasn't - handsome, athletic, musically gifted, attractive to many girls. I envied him, but I kept it to myself.

Then, one weekend, several of us were invited to spend the night at his parents' house about an hour away after a concert. I had trouble getting to sleep and couldn't figure out why until it suddenly hit me - my friend was sleeping in the next room, and I was wondering what it would be like to sleep with him.

This realization left me shaken. I've since understood that, in this particular case, my desire to have the things he had and was had become a desire to have him. But for the first time I had to admit to myself that I could be attracted to other men. Ultimately, I had to face a lot of self-revelations, including that, had I not committed myself to following Christ when I did, I would have gotten into hallucinogens, been bisexual, and either murdered or at least assaulted someone in anger. But that's another story. "The Wisdom of Solomon", to be precise (check out my short stories page).

After graduation, I lost track of my friend for several years. Then, one day, another mutual friend told me that my friend had turned his back on Christianity, had moved to Chicago and found a job working in a gay bar, and had died of AIDS. Had I unconsciously picked up on something? I don't know. I'm not sure it really matters.

My experiences made me especially sensitive to the ongoing struggle between orthodox Christians and the LGBTQ community. Usually, even in this supposedly "enlightened" era, that conflict expresses itself in vicious attacks and bigotry from both directions. I began to wonder if there were some way the two opposing camps could be encouraged to understand each other, to see each other as people with faces and lives and hopes and fears and not just as vague targets for epithets and worse. I began to formulate a novel, one that I was almost afraid to write, not only because of the difficulty in finding some sort of middle ground, but because it would be certain to offend many on both sides. But I had to try. And I knew that I would be facing another obstacle: my protagonist would not be a sympathetic - he would go through hell, much of it richly deserved.

I began writing - and was immediately stumped by something much more prosaic. I wanted to cast the novel in some special form, something that would reflect Kelden Scott's journey. I knew the story would cover a year in his life, more or less (it turned out to be more, by a few weeks), so I immediately thought of dividing it into four sections, one for each season. But that was too obvious.

I knew Kelden would be a musician - a concert bassoonist, in fact. (Why bassoon? I have no idea.) So my next thought made perfect sense: cast the novel in the form of a symphony. Four sections - four movements - each with its own character. I could present the basic themes and develop them in the first movement. I could introduce more conflict and raise it to a fever pitch in the "scherzo". I could provide more introspection in the third movement. And then I could bring it all crashing together in a grand, fugal finale. I decided to call the novel Symphony on a Theme of Eros, "eros" being the Greek term for physical or sexual love (from which we get the word "erotic"). No - even better: Since the novel was exploring the variations on traditional sexual love, why not call it Variations on a Theme of Eros? All right, so the symphonic form and the theme-and-variations form are very different, but maybe the musical world would forgive me for stretching the point a bit.

Finally, because both titles were a bit clumsy, it became, simply, The Eros Variations.

Then I had another idea. I had graduated from Illinois State University with a degree in music composition; why not actually do something with that other than work in a factory, and write a real symphony to accompany the novel? This was just as scary as the novel, since I had never finished such a massive composition, but it was also exciting. I began outlining the novel as I began writing the symphony, trying to make the music reflect the turmoil and tenderness of the plot without writing actual "program" music (music that has a literal correspondence to a story).

I actually finished my 192-page symphonic score before I finished the novel, which caused a bit of a dilemma. In my original outline, I had the novel end in ambiguity - the reader would be left not knowing what Kelden would ultimately decide with his life. Thus, the music ends in quiet, restless uncertainty. However, when I reached that point in the actual story, I realized that I couldn't follow my original plan. As planned, I had dragged Kelden through emotional hell, forcing him to confront addiction and death while dangling hope just out of his reach. I owed it to him - and to the readers who had made that journey with him - to allow him redemption. And I owed it to my vision to present hope in the spiritual/sexual battle that I had dared to explore. So I gave the novel that hopeful, redemptive ending. But did that mean I had to rewrite the end of the symphony? I just couldn't. I liked that ending too much. So while the novel has an uplifting ending, the symphony retains that original uncertainty.

Some years later, I was able to transcribe the symphony to an online program that would then electronically perform the music using actual samples of real instruments. That performance, about 50 minutes long, is posted in The Music Room. The music is atonal and polyrhythmic with a strong romantic streak; the novel, while more traditional in its style, is no more "comfortable" to approach.

And, yes, much of what I experienced in my own journey found its way into the story.

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